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Published June 7, 2019

We all know what it’s like to be hungry, but there’s a big difference between “I skipped breakfast this morning” hungry, and “I haven’t had a proper meal in months” hungry. Food is the most basic human need, and when there isn’t enough of it to go around the devastation can be unimaginable. What’s even worse, though, is when there is enough food, and people starve anyway.

nils-nedel-454383-unsplash-1024x576-9917540 Source: Unsplash

The potato is a humble vegetable, a staple food in many parts of the world – and an annoying stereotype if you happen to be Irish. Well, actually, it’s more than annoying; it’s rather poor taste, considering that the potato was the trigger for a famine that killed around a million Irish people in the nineteenth century.

When the potato was first introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century, it was slow to catch on as a foodstuff. However, gradually people realised just how good it was; it adapted easily to different climates, was cheap and easy to produce, bulky enough to satisfy hunger, and nutritious too.

In Ireland, there were additional reasons for its eventual popularity, stemming from the country’s traditions of land ownership and tenancy.

At the top of the social hierarchy were the landowners, who were largely Protestant thanks to punitive laws which had prevented Catholics from owning land for many years. They were also, in many cases, British, or had strong ties to England. This meant that they were frequently absentee landlords, leaving their estates in the hands of their agents or middlemen. Rents were collected, generally in the form of crops rather than cash, and shipped out of Ireland to feed other parts of the British Empire and return a tidy profit to the landlord’s pocket.

Next in the hierarchy were the farmers; they ranked well in society and lived in some comfort in what were termed second-class houses. These had slate roofs, windows, several rooms, and furniture. They may even have had rugs on the floor.

Below them, there were the smallholders, whose share of the land could be less than an acre, or as much as fifteen acres. Their homes would often be categorised as third-class houses; stone built cottages which might have had more than one room, but often didn’t, and which would only have had a few windows. Furniture was rare; the bedding was often just a pile of straw on the floor.

stopford-4938779 A contemporary lithograph by A.G. Stopford. Source: Views of the Famine

That may sound awfully impoverished compared to modern western civilisation, but there were fourth-class houses, too. These belonged to the cottiers, labourers who were practically landless and relied on very small garden plots for subsistence. They were given permission by smallholders to use little patches of their land, in return for a share of their labour and the crops they grew, in a system called conacre.

American social reformer Frederick Douglass, who sailed to Ireland in 1845 and spent two years there, described one of these houses.

“Four mud walls about six feet high, occupying a space of ground about ten feet square, covered or thatched with straw—a mud chimney at one end, reaching about a foot above the roof—without apartments or divisions of any kind—without floor, without windows, and sometimes without a chimney—a piece of pine board laid on the top of a box or an old chest— a pile of straw covered with dirty garments…—a picture representing the crucifixion of Christ, pasted on the most conspicuous place on the wall—a few broken dishes stuck up in a corner—an iron pot, or the half of an iron pot, in one corner of the chimney—a little peat in the fireplace, aggravating one occasionally with a glimpse of fire, but sending out very little heat—a man and his wife and five children, and a pig… Here you have an Irish hut or cabin, such as millions of the people of Ireland live in. And some live in worse than these.”

In many cases, these farms had started off as large estates, but had been sub-divided by landlords and their agents in order to make more money. Often the land was then divided even more by the tenants themselves. Land was customarily split equally and sub-let to their heirs, who would eventually do the same for their heirs, and so on, so that plots became smaller and smaller. The landlords, if they knew, didn’t generally care too much so long as their rents were paid.

hai-nguyen-417120-unsplash-1024x768-2847727 Source: Unsplash

What has all that got to do with the potato? Simple; the potato could easily be grown in small garden plots, and offered a much higher calorific value than, say, grain. Even a cottier with a tiny patch of ground to work could feed their family relatively well with potatoes to form the bulk of their diet. Those who had more land to work on still came to rely heavily on the potato; the less land they needed to feed their family, the more they had to grow more marketable crops which would actually pay their rent. They had, by the nineteenth century, grown accustomed to this subsistence level of existence.

Martha Blake, an English-born woman who married into an Irish landowning family, wrote of their tenants in “Letters from the Irish Highlands”, dated 1823;

“If they have turf and potatoes enough, they reckon themselves provided for: if a few herrings, a little oatmeal, and, above all, the milk of a cow be added, they are rich, they can enjoy themselves and dance with a light heart, after their day’s work is over.”

At the beginning of August, 1845, newspapers reported favourably on the state of the potato crop, saying it was “more abundant this season than it has been for several years past”.

By mid-August, however, reports of a blight in potatoes were coming in from the South of England. The Sussex Advertiser wrote, “The potatoes themselves are affected by becoming soft and pulpy on one side as if frost-bitten, and are rendered totally unfit for the food of even cattle.”

For a while, Ireland seemed to be safe. On the 26th of August, 1845, the Dublin Evening Post reported that “We are happy to have such good accounts of the Potato Crop in all parts of Ireland, and that we have escaped the blight that appears to have visited that Crop in several Counties of England and in Holland.”

However, just a few days later, on the 29th, the Dublin Evening Mail wrote that:

“The potato crop… is far from satisfactory. There appears everywhere a great abundance, but in several districts a rot has set in, and two-thirds of the tubers are found to be rotten within, though large and well looking without. It is remarkable that this blight prevails to an enormous extent about Crossdony and Ballynamore, where four men, it is said, would scarcely turn up a cart load of good potatoes in the course of a day’s work.”

phytophtora_infestans-effects-1024x735-5056927 A potato affected by Phytophthora infestans – the cause of the blight.
Source: Wikipedia

Across Ireland, the blight was reported to have affected between a third and a half of the total crop. For the labourers at the bottom of the pile, that meant they had between a third and a half of the food they needed for the rest of the year.

In some areas, this was seen as a serious problem, but not an insurmountable one. There had been crop failures before, and all they had to do was hang on until the next crop. Communities looked out for one another where they could, even in some cases leaving gifts of food on the doorsteps of the needy so that nobody would be embarrassed by having to accept charity.

However, many of the poorest were immediately affected. Landlords and their agents collected their rents as usual, despite the fact that this meant leaving the tenants with no food. Smallholders who had cottiers using the land under conacre were also hard-hit; they expected to get a share of the cottiers’ crop, and if it failed they got nothing, but still had to pay the rent for the land the cottiers occupied.

Those with higher status in the community raised funds with which to buy food, and wrote letters to higher authorities to try and raise awareness of the dire circumstances which loomed that winter. Of course, it is worth noting that in a number of cases, those letter-writers were the same landlords who were receiving their tenants’ crops and shipping them away. Perhaps they kept some aside to be sold to those tenants who actually had the cash, but little to none was given away.

In England, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel was said to have found the reports “alarming”; however, in a letter to Sir James Graham, the then Home Secretary, he also wrote;

“There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable.”

Peel’s main proposed solution was to repeal the Corn Laws, which imposed high tariffs on any grain imported from overseas. That would allow Irish landlords to import cheap grain from America with which to feed their tenants – and he strongly felt that the Irish should deal with their own problems. However, this move would eventually be defeated in parliament.

Irish Catholic leader Daniel O’Connell thought a lot more should be done. Amongst his suggestions were a ban on distilling and brewing, because it used huge amounts of grain that would be better used to feed people, a ban on the export of food from Ireland, and for Irish ports to be allowed to receive food imports directly, instead of having them go through British ports first. He also wanted the Government to provide direct relief for the destitute, to levy a higher tax on absentee landlords and use the revenue to fund relief, and begin public works projects immediately to provide Irish labourers with paid work so that they could buy food.

He led a delegation which included the Duke of Leinster and other notables to see Lord Heytesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and presented his proposals. The delegation was heard politely and then they were practically hustled out of the door.

As circumstances deteriorated in Ireland – and Peel presumably realised that the reports were not inaccurate or exaggerated – a relief commission was appointed, first meeting in November of 1845.

They would not just give food to the starving, however. There was a belief that if they gave food to the Irish, they would never try to earn it again, and Britain would be stuck feeding them forever.

Instead, it was decided that relief committees would be set up, raising the taxes in individual areas to finance relief for that area. In terms of Government aid, it was agreed to loan the Irish Board of Works enough to set up public works projects to employ the destitute. Note the word “loan”; they were expected to pay it back.

The setting up of extra poorhouses and fever hospitals was also authorised, although again, the funds for them were only loaned and any area which built them would be taking on debts.

Finally, on his own initiative, Peel bought £100,000 worth of American maize, often known at the time as Indian corn. Not for free distribution; it was to be sold, at market price, and only if the local merchants had nothing to sell.

  • cheap-receipts-and-hints-on-cookery-collected-for-distribution-amongst-the-irish-peasantry-in-1847-1-669x1024-2104814
  • cheap-receipts-and-hints-on-cookery2-679x1024-4931120
  • cheap-receipts-and-hints-on-cookery3-687x1024-5891963

Recipes and hints for cheap cookery were distributed in Ireland in 1847

People in Ireland were already dying from hunger. Peel’s “Indian corn” didn’t arrive until February, and initially it didn’t go down well either metaphorically or literally. Irish mills weren’t equipped to grind it properly, as it was different to the wheat and corn they were accustomed to,  and if not cooked very thoroughly indeed it made people unwell, one account stating it caused abdominal pain and diarrhea. However, once hunger kicked in – and once people began to understand how to properly cook it – it became very popular. When the depots opened to sell it, they were besieged, and many went away disappointed.

The process of setting up public works was also somewhat long-winded. There were strict criteria, and they weren’t allowed to be profitable to anyone – so the labourers often ended up building roads that literally went nowhere.

The public works also depended on the cooperation of local landlords, some of whom were not inclined to help their tenants and wanted nothing to do with it.

Other landlords were worse than unhelpful; on the 13th of March 1846, a Mrs Gerrard of Ballinlass in Galway evicted some 300 tenants, because she intended to start a grazing farm on the land they occupied. Their homes were demolished by the police; they were even, according to Lord Londonderry, “driven from the ditches to which they had been taken themselves for shelter.”

Homeless, and with those in the area who had avoided eviction forbidden to help them, there was little hope for those turned out. Eviction was described at the time as being “tantamount to a sentence of death by slow torture.”

Despite this, Lord Brougham, former Lord Chancellor, defended the landlord’s right to evict tenants in a speech at the House of Lords on the 23rd of March:

“Undoubtedly it is the landlord’s right to do as he pleased, and if he abstained he conferred a favor and was doing an act of kindness. If, on the other hand, he choose to stand on his right, the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist… property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested in cultivation of the land if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord’s undoubted and most sacred right to deal with his property as he wished.”

ejectment-4777829 Source: Views of the Famine

Tenants who protested that they couldn’t pay their rent because of the blight received little sympathy from the bailiffs. A reply from one was quoted in the Freeman’s Journal in April 1846:

“What the devil do we care about you or your black potatoes? It was not us that made them black. You will get two days to pay the rent, and if you don’t you know the consequences.”

A petition from the Templecrone parish in Northwest Donegal, dated the 27th of March, illustrates how bad things were in Ireland at that point. It stated that there were 500 families in the area with only five weeks of provisions left, and 200 families with nothing at all, completely reliant on charity for their survival.

And they weren’t just hungry; disease was spreading. The Dublin Evening Mail, on the 18th of March, published “Abstracts of the most serious representations made by the several medical superintendents of public institutions (fever hospitals, infirmaries, dispensaries, &c.) in the provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connaught.“

It took up almost half a page of the broadsheet; just a few examples:

“Diarrhoea to a considerable extent exists in this district produced from constant use of diseased potatoes.”

“Fever, diarrhoea and dyspepsia have increased considerably, and are in many cases traceable to the use of unsound potatoes.”

“Cottiers are without even tainted potatoes for food. Many unemployed poor of district are in a starving condition.”

A further concern during this time was whether they’d have enough potatoes to plant for the 1846 crop, because potatoes are grown from other potatoes, rather than from seed. Could the hungry refrain from eating those needed for planting? Relief funds were, in part, diverted towards ensuring that a big enough crop could be planted to feed the people through to the next year.

Resources were stretched as thin as possible. Anything that could be sold – even beds, clothes, and heirlooms – was sold to buy food. Many of those who kept animals decided to eat them, rather than save them to pay the next rent.

Once the first crop of potatoes was planted, it was common for labourers from Ireland to travel to Scotland for work. However, Scotland too was affected, and was swamped with the destitute seeking work. For every man employed, there could be another nine disappointed, and as those men made their way home they often turned to begging. Others remained at home, their hopes raised by the prospect of public service works – but these were also swamped with applicants, and the Board of Works were understaffed and unable to supervise them properly.

The summer was always a difficult time for the average Irish labourer. They lived so close to the edge that there was usually a period when food ran out and became scarce before the new harvest came in. However, for those who’d got this far, the potato crop in their fields promised that these hard days would soon be over.

Meanwhile, in England, many were still busy denying that there was any problem with the potatoes in Ireland at all. The London Daily News, on the 26th of March 1846, reported a few of these claims with some disdain:

“A practical farmer assures Mr. Shaw that (happy farmer of Cork!) “that part of Ireland had not in his memory experienced a better year than the last!” A clergyman of the Established Church, residing near Fermoy, declares “the potato famine in his part of the country to be vox et praeterea nihil!” [translation- a voice and nothing else!] The clergyman also adds, “my own potatoes are very good!”

Lord Bentinck, who had been instrumental in defeating Peel’s attempt to repeal the Corn Laws, “affirmed that the famine in Ireland from the potato rot was a gross delusion” in the House of Commons.

Even if they did admit the potatoes were rotten, they could still deny the problem. The Duke of Cambridge, Queen Victoria’s uncle, declared to an Agricultural Society meeting that,

“Rotten potatoes and sea-weed, or even grass, properly mixed, afforded a very wholesome and nutritious food. All knew that Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty grass in the field though the potato crop should fail.”

In June of 1846, Peel resigned, and was replaced by Lord John Russell. His Whig government believed strongly in the idea of laissez-faire – effectively, leave things alone and they’ll fix themselves – and felt that this should be applied to the Irish famine.

Under their direction, the relief and public works programmes that Peel had set up were to be stopped.

Sir Charles Trevelyan, the permanent head of the treasury, was effectively in charge of doing this, as any money spent on relief had to be sanctioned by the Treasury. On the 8th of July, he actually turned away a shipment of Indian corn, despite concerns already being raised about the new crop of potatoes. On July 17th, he told Sir Randolph Routh, who was in charge of distributing the Indian corn, that “the only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on Government is to bring operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes this more necessary.” The depots and public service works were ordered to be closed on the 15th of August.

On the 7th of August, Irish Catholic priest Father Theobald Mathew wrote a letter to Trevelyan.

“A bolt more destructive than the simoom of the desert has passed over the land, and the hopes of the poor potato cultivators are totally blighted, and the food of a whole nation has perished. On the 27th of last month, I passed from Cork to Dublin, and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd instant, I beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrifying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless.”

an_irish_peasant_family_discovering_the_blight_of_their_store_by_daniel_macdonald-7557117 “An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store” by Daniel MacDonald, 1847. Source: Wikipedia

Around Ireland, other accounts came in. Captain Mann, a Coast Guard officer who was working to distribute relief, wrote:

“I shall never forget the change in one week in August. On the first occasion, on an official visit of inspection, I had passed dover thirty-two miles thickly studded with potato fields in full bloom. The next time the face of the whole country was changed, the stalk remained bright green, but the leaves were all scorched black. It was the work of a night.”

Unlike the 1845 blight, which had affected the crops unevenly and left at least some good crops for harvest, this time it was near total. The Times, on the 2nd of September, declared it to be “total annihilation.”Trevelyan’s new plans for relief in Ireland were in two parts. Firstly, a new programme of public relief works would begin; however, this time the districts where they took place would have to bear the entire cost. The Treasury would give them an advance, but it had to be repaid with interest within ten years. The relief committees were now expected to provide lists of those eligible to work on these projects to make sure that only those who were truly in need could take advantage.

Secondly, the Government refused in general to supply any more food to Ireland, feeling that the reason private enterprise hadn’t put enough on the market was the presence of the Government’s Indian corn, which would be sold at cost price when released. That would undercut merchant’s supplies, so why should they invest?

The only exceptions would be for parts in the east of the country, where reliance on the potato was so total that there was no trade in other foodstuffs.

This plan quickly fell apart in several ways. There were complaints about the depots closing just as the situation became more dire; Catholic Archbishop John MacHale told Lord Russell, “You might as well issue an edict of general starvation as stop the supplies…”

Trevelyan had expected a respite in August, when the second potato crop started to come through, but that failed as totally as the first crop. With need ever rising, and a few thousand tons of Peel’s Indian corn remaining, permission was given to distribute it. In some places, Commisariat officers decided to give it out for free, in order to save lives. At least one was reprimanded by Whitehall as a result.

indiancorn-6603047 Source: Views of the Famine

When they were told the works were to be closed, some labourers in Limerick tore up the road they had just built. 400 labourers in Cork marched on the town, demanding work – but were quietly dispersed. However, the need for employment was so clear that the new Lord-Lieutenant of ireland, Lord Bessborough, ordered that any incomplete works should be restarted.

The Board of Works, already understaffed, now had to deal with that as well as the new programme, and they were again swamped and unable to administer it properly.

By the end of December 1846, there would be around half a million Irish labourers working on public relief projects, but getting work didn’t always mean that you were saved. Having starved for a year already, many of the destitute labourers were ill equipped for it, or too sick to withstand it.

One account described labourers going to work in December 1846 at Skibbereen:

“At daybreak, I saw a gang of about 150, composed principally of old men, women, and little boys, going out to work … At that time the ground was covered with snow, and there was also a very severe frost … In the course of the day, I went out to visit this gang, who were opening a drain inside the fence on the Marsh road … The women and children were crying out from the severity of the cold, and were unable to hold the implements with which they were at work, most of them declared that they had not tasted food for the day.”

On the 19th of January 1847, the Southern Reporter described the deaths of two men on the works:

“his death was caused from dire necessity and want of food. His name was Denis Driscoll, and he worked on the Myross road to which he was obliged to walk three miles every day, and return at night to his family.”

“a poor man named Paddy Whelton … died this morning near Myross demesne gate from the combined effects of cold and hunger … he was working on the Myross road.’

They weren’t the first, nor the last. Thousands would die that winter. Sometimes, it was because they were too malnourished. Others died from disease, which quickly spread to epidemic levels because the works brought so many people into close contact.

The poor administration by the Board of Works also contributed to the pressure. Without enough pay clerks to manage the workload, labourers went unpaid – and starved.

As horrible as they had been to this point, accounts coming out of Ireland grew worse and worse. The Illustrated London News, apparently thinking that these reports had to be exaggerated, commissioned an artist to travel through the worst-hit areas, publishing both his drawings and his account of the journey:

“… we came to Clonakilty, where the coach stopped for breakfast; and here, for the first time, the horrors of the poverty became visible, in the vast number of famished poor, who flocked around the coach to beg alms: amongst them was a woman carrying in her arms the corpse of a fine child, and making the most distressing appeal to the passengers for aid to enable her to purchase a coffin and bury her dear little baby.

… we either met a funeral of a coffin at every hundred yards…

We proceeded to Bridgetown… and there I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them.”

skibbereen_by_james_mahony_1847-4274055 One of James Mahony’s illustrations for the Illustrated London News. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Other accounts told of people who have been eaten by their animals; fat dogs roaming where the people had nothing to eat, and a man who was thought, by the expression on his face, to have been eaten from the feet up by a pig before he passed away.

Another told of entering a cottage to encounter a terrible stench; when asked about it, the mother pointed to the remains of one of her children on the bed, so decomposed that it was described as “absolutely melted away”. When asked why she hadn’t buried him, she explained that she had no strength, and besides, her other child would die soon and she could bury them both together.

By the beginning of 1847, the British Government adopted a new approach; a combination of indoor and outdoor relief.Indoor relief meant the workhouses. They were in some ways better than the public works projects, because at least people had shelter, but they were overcrowded, the work was still very hard, especially for those already in a fragile state, and the conditions of entry meant that the whole family had to enter, and then be split up. There were plenty of people who refused to enter the workhouses due to pride, preferring to die in their own homes.

Outdoor relief meant soup kitchens. This was announced in Parliament by Lord John Russell, saying that the purpose of distributing free soup was “ so that labouring men should be allowed to work on their own plots of ground, or for the farmers, and thus tend to produce food for the next harvest and procure perhaps some small wages to enable them to support their families.”

The soup, however, was not great stuff. In Vicarstown, Queen’s County, the local schoolmaster described the soup they were provided as a “vile compound” – it had been made for less than a penny per quart, a quart being a little more than a litre. Thirty gallons – that’s about 136 litres – had been made with one oxhead and 73.5 pounds – about 33kg- of vegetables and flour. The rest was just water.

A famous French chef had made some equally economical soup recipes, and was invited to provide them to the people of Dublin. They expected to provide 5,000 meals a day; in practice, it was 8,750.

In many places, the soup kitchens simply couldn’t keep up with demand. They were also, in some areas, controversial; it was widely claimed that many were run by Protestants, who required the starving people to accept the Protestant faith in order to receive their rations, and even served meat soups on Fridays – Catholics being forbidden to eat meat on Fridays – forcing the Catholic majority to choose between their faith and food. It’s not clear how widespread this practice actually was, but the fear of it was certainly common.

Many of the soup kitchens, however, whilst run by religious groups like the Quakers or the Anglicans, were operated purely out of charity, and didn’t come with any proselytising attached.

Evictions increased in 1847; it’s not clear exactly how many, because the police didn’t record figures until 1849, but in just one case three thousand people were evicted. In many cases, this was because the landlords were responsible for paying rates for their tenants; since many of those tenants were incapable of paying their rent, evicting them would reduce the landlord’s debts.

The Bishop of Meath, Thomas Nulty, described evictions in his area:

“Seven hundred human beings were driven from their homes in one day and set adrift on the world, to gratify the caprice of one who, before God and man, probably deserved less consideration than the last and least of them … The horrid scenes I then witnessed, I must remember all my life long. The wailing of women—the screams, the terror, the consternation of children—the speechless agony of honest industrious men—wrung tears of grief from all who saw them. I saw officers and men of a large police force, who were obliged to attend on the occasion, cry like children at beholding the cruel sufferings of the very people whom they would be obliged to butcher had they offered the least resistance. The landed proprietors in a circle all around—and for many miles in every direction—warned their tenantry, with threats of their direct vengeance, against the humanity of extending to any of them the hospitality of a single night’s shelter … and in little more than three years, nearly a fourth of them lay quietly in their graves.”

When the famine struck, the only hope many Irish people had left was leaving Ireland. In a letter dated the 6th of September 1846, probably dictated and written by a priest as Mary was known to be illiterate, one couple wrote to relatives who had previously emigrated to Canada:

“Dear Father and Mother, Pen cannot dictate the poverty of this country at present. The potato crop is quite done away all over Ireland. There is nothing expected here, only an immediate famine. If you knew what danger we and our fellow countrymen are suffering, if you were ever so much distressed, you would take us out of this poverty isle. We can only say, the scourge of God fell down on Ireland, in taking away the potatoes, they being the only support of the people. So, dear father and mother, if you don’t endeavor to take us out of it, it will be the first news you will hear by some friend of me and my little family to be lost by hunger, and there are thousands dread they will share the same fate. So, I conclude with my blessings to you both and remain, Your affectionate son and daughter, Michael and Mary Rush

For God’s sake take us out of poverty, and don’t let us die with the hunger.”

No record has been found of Mary leaving Ireland.

Prior to the famine, emigration from Ireland had already been happening, at a rate of around 50,000 people a year. However, it increased massively during the famine years, peaking at 250,000 in 1847.

Not all those who left would reach a new life in a new country. With demand rising so quickly, many of the ships taking the emigrants were overcrowded, under-provisioned, and highly unsanitary. Many of the emigrants taken on board were already sick with “famine fever” – typhus or relapsing fever – and the cramped conditions onboard ensured that it spread.

With as many as 40% of the passengers dying either on the way or shortly after arrival, they became known as coffin ships.

One passenger, Stephen De Vere, described the circumstances in which he sailed to America in 1847:

“Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the fevered patients lying beside the sound, by their agonised ravings disturbing those around. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked in consequences of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow for washing. No moral restraint is attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with all its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is found profitable by the captain who traffics in grog.”

It was only in 1850 that the famine was considered ended. It’s unclear to this day exactly how many died, however the most widely accepted estimate is around one million, with at least another million leaving for new shores. Deaths occurred due to both starvation and disease, since malnourishment made people far more susceptible to infection, and the resulting depopulation of Ireland had long-lasting consequences for the country.

a_terrible_record_john_johnson_political__satirical_cropped-9649644 A political cartoon from 1881. Source: Wikipedia

The unbelievable thing about this is, in the midst of all this hunger, the Irish were still harvesting thousands of tons of crops. On Tuesday, the 1st of September 1846, the Cork Southern Reporter wrote:

“In the Corn Market, Limerick, on Saturday, there appeared about 4,000 barrels of oats and about an equal quantity of wheat. All this grain was purchased up principally for exportation, whilst the food of the people as exhibited in the potato market was a mass of disease and rottenness. This is an anomaly which no intricacies of political economy – no legal quibbles or crotchets – no governmental arrangements can reconcile. In an agricultural country which produces the finest corn for the food of man, we have to record that that corn is sold and sent out of the country, whilst the individuals that raised it by their toil and labour are threatened with all the horrors of starvation.”

In 1849, English social reformer and poet Ebenezer Jones wrote; “In the year A.D. 1846, there were exported from Ireland, 3,266,193 quarters of wheat, barley and oats, besides flour, beans, peas, and rye; 186,483 cattle, 6,363 calves, 259,257 sheep, 180,827 swine; (food, that is, in the shape of meat and bread, for about one half of the Irish population), and yet this very year of A.D. 1846 was pre-eminently, owing to a land monopoly, the famine year for the Irish people.”

Why would the people allow this? Why would the farmers not keep their oats or wheat to eat? This came back to the tenancy arrangements. Their rents were high, and they were paid in those crops. If the rents were not paid, the farmers and smallholders would be evicted; they would have no land to grow anything on, and would have neither food or shelter. They chose to pay their rent so that they at least still had a roof over their head, even though it meant having nothing to eat. In addition, these crops had been too expensive for the average labourer even before the famine, and the Government’s laissez-faire attitude meant that they did nothing to change that.

That didn’t mean that the Irish accepted it, though. The lingering animosity towards the British Government because of the way they treated the Irish during the famine was one of the factors that led to the campaign for Home Rule, leading up to the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and, eventually, the establishment of the current Republic of Ireland.

famine_memorial_dublin-1024x768-2794318 Irish Famine memorial in Dublin. Source: Wikipedia

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